10 Photography Hacks that will Dramatically Improve Your Photos

10 Photography Hacks that will Dramatically Improve Your Photos

Mike is the author of the eBook Hacking Photography: A Plain-English Guide to Taking Impressive Photos – Fast. Click here to view more details

There is a widely accepted rule called The Pareto Principle also known as the 80:20 rule. In short, it states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts. I find that in learning photography, this can even skew much higher. This means that potentially improving 5% of your photographic knowledge in the right places, could improve your photography by 95%!

10 photography hacks that will dramatically improve your photos

Hack 1 – Turn the flash off of automatic!

Camera manufacturers are often too eager to make the flash pop up even when it gets slightly dark. This is actually a retention tool for them. If the flash pops, the photo won’t look as good but people won’t be blurry because the flash freezes them in place. If enough new photographers see blurry photos (even though they are caused by improper photographer technique) they will assume something is wrong with the camera and take it back for a refund.

Instead, keep the flash closed and increase the ISO. In all the camera modes except Manual mode and Shutter Priority, increasing your ISO will cause the camera to increase your shutter speed to have a better chance of freezing people in motion. Now shoot the photo. It will use the ambient (available) light, which typically has more color and character instead of a bright face and black background.

Hacking photography music

Hack 2 – Get in close to your subject…then get closer

Most people think that they have to step way back and get a lot of space around the subject to get the whole scene. Your subject is not a mime that is stuck in an invisible box, it’s okay to cut off their foreheads, legs, or lower half every now and then! Try getting a close-up of someone’s face from the eyebrows to the mouth. Here is a quick example:

Hacking photography get closer

The problem with zooming way out for every photo is that it doesn’t make it plainly obvious to the viewer what is the point or subject of the photo. I’m a huge fan of subtraction – the less there is in your photo the better. The best images are simple and very clear to the viewer what “story” you are telling with your images.

Hack 3: Eliminate the clutter

This is huge! The best images are ones that are simple and have breathing room for the subject. Try to find the simplest background possible. It’s no different than walking into a super cluttered house versus walking into a clean minimalistic space with very few items to distract you.

If you are taking a photo of a person, take the extra second to look around and find a minimal background that doesn’t distract the viewer.

Hack 4: Look for repeating patterns

Ever hear someone say that a photographer “just has the eye for it?” I disagree. This is a learned skill, not something that you are born with.

As you walk around, take notice of buildings, windows, patterns in brickwork, etc. I was walking by a building I walk by all the time and something suddenly ‘clicked’ and I realized there was a really cool pattern in the brickwork I had never noticed before. I ran home and grabbed my camera to shoot it before I forgot again.

Hacking photography repeating patterns

Hack 5: Shoot from interesting perspectives

I would argue that 99% of photos most viewers ever see are shot from eye-level where the photographer was standing – the same viewpoint we see 99% of our lives from. It’s no surprise when you go to the top of a huge building and look down at a city that it’s visually stunning because we don’t see that perspective very often. You see this birds-eye-view used a lot in food photography.

Hacking photography birds eye view

The same goes for getting down on your stomach and shooting straight up to the sky. Anytime you are afforded a unique viewpoint it’s always interesting to the viewer.

Hack 6: Look for symmetry

Your viewer will do backflips if you can find an image that perfectly reflects the same thing top to bottom, or right to left! How many times have we seen something every day then see a photographer create an image that is an entirely different view of that item?

I took a photo trip to Italy and consciously tried to capture as much symmetry as I could. Here is a quick symmetrical shot:

Hacking photography florence moon

Always keep an eye out for perfect symmetry!

Hack 7: Straighten your lines

Instead of just clicking away when you see something interesting, take the extra second to make sure horizontal lines are horizontal, and vertical lines are vertical. We all have the habit nowadays of just pointing our cameras in the general vicinity of what we are shooting. I propose you take a moment and line yourself up perfectly with that building or person.

Hack 8: Max out the aperture

What most people perceive as “artistic” photographs (AKA better than most) are ones that use a big aperture (small f-number) to blur the background or foreground, to call more attention to a subject. If you are using a kit lens your aperture will likely only go down to f/3.5, which isn’t a very big aperture.

The biggest impact item, and cheapest investment in gear that can make your photos go from okay to awesome is a lens with a huge aperture. I recommend purchasing a 50mm f/1.8 new on Amazon for $130-200 (Canon 50mm f/1.8 or Nikon version) or you can usually find them in perfect condition, used, for between $80-150.

Hacking photography aperture

Hack 9: Know where the light is coming from, and the quality

It’s funny how easy it is to take great photographs if you are just simply aware of these two things. Think about this: if you are shooting a photograph of someone outside and the sun is directly behind him or her, they will show up as a dark silhouette. If all you did was switch positions with this person so they are facing the sun, they will be nicely lit.

Being aware of the direction and quality of light can also ties into step 4 above. I walked outside of a building, looked down an outside walkway and noticed the shadows formed a really cool pattern because the sun was very bright and coming in from the right. This made an interesting arch pattern that almost looked like an MC Escher sketch.

Hacking photography maze patterns

Hack 10: Use the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the simplest and most under-utilized tip in the book. Are you ready for the quickest and easiest lesson yet? Here we go: go into your camera and turn on the “Grid” function which will show a grid in your viewfinder with horizontal and vertical lines when you look through it. 99% of new photographers put their subject smack in the middle of the frame when they compose the photo. The viewer also sees 99% of photos with the subject right in the middle of the frame because they look directly at a person, item, etc. This gets really boring really quickly, as we discussed earlier.

The tic-tac-toe rule

Imagine a tic-tac-toe board when you look through your viewfinder. Some cameras have a ‘grid’ function you can turn on to see this through the viewfinder. You always want to line up the point of interest where the lines meet each other. When you compose your photo, line up the point of interest at either 1/3 to the right or left of the frame, and/or the top or bottom 1/3. You want to give your subject room to breathe in the frame.

I caught this at a huge Halloween party Miller-Coors sponsored. You can see who got the attention at the intersection of the top and left 1/3 marks. Note the people on bottom all line up with the bottom horizontal 1/3 line.

Hacking photography rule of thirds

Wrapping up

If you follow these 10 hacks, your photography will take a giant leap forward. I recommend experimenting with one of these hacks per day for 10 days. After you get used to thinking about each one, you will eventually internalize the lesson so it will just happen instinctually. That’s when photography really gets fun. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Please share any additional tips in the comments section below.

For more on these hacks grab Mike’s eBook Hacking Photography: A Plain-English Guide to Taking Impressive Photos – Fast, Click here to view more details.

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Mike Newton teaches photography learning shortcuts and other photo hacks at Hacking Photography. He is a full-time advertising photographer in San Diego California. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, or his personal photography site.

  • Mike

    I agree…the first time I shot with a new f/1.8 I was surprised and slightly annoyed that I had left it for too long. It’s about trying different things and learning…

  • Mike

    My 11year old read these tips…not still a baby, but near enough in photographic terms. He’ll got quite a bit out of this article. The basics never change.

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    Thanks Mike! I always try to write on the side of simplicity vs. overcomplication!

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    Hi Jonas,

    Hmm, I don’t think I mentioned anything about SEO or glossing over anything – sounds like you have a previous opinion about something that you are associating with my post. It doesn’t sound like your a big Tim Ferriss fan either :)

    Perhaps you forget what it was like so many years ago when you first started photography – the simple things ARE amazing and need to be taught before unnecessarily complex tutorials that are over someones head. I didn’t write this for photojournalists. I wrote it for beginners.

    I don’t think I see the connection between your reference to “SEO, real hurdles, or actual work” and my tips above. Was that a reference to Tim’s books/writing style? Just want to make sure I’m following along here.

    I’m fairly certain the audience I’m writing for gets the reference that a hack means a tip vs. a “ow quality, rushed, product that is used to fill the gaps between more involved and crafted items”.

  • http://72dpi.com/gallery/lancekoz lance kozlowski

    Along with turning off the flash, surprisingly often, turning the flash on when outdoors helps. People are often framed against a big scene or brightly lit building, and the flash helps equalize the exposure. Also, it adds a bit of fill in shadows. Getting conscious of their flash is one of the first things snapshooters should know.

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    I couldn’t agree more. The best way to learn is to go out, take a ton of photos, make a ton of mistakes, and love every second of it. It certainly helps if you can get some good tips along the way, but nothing is more fun then getting out and creating images!

  • Hhamayoon

    I think these are very useful TIPs one should know, and adopt as a second habit Thanks MIKE..

  • Jean

    “Hack” is a term that recently has come to mean “tips” in articles such as this. The English language is constantly evolving, and this article is a great example of hacks to improve our photography! I loved it.

  • Not Falling For It

    How ’bout we just stick to what peope already know, and use terms like “tip”, if that’s what you mean? Let’s stop inventing new terms that are already widely used for other things, and that only serve to confuse people.

  • Just Another Sunday

    Maybe the complaints would stop if articles and the like were graded. As ‘Beginners’, ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’? For me personally, I just say thanks for taking the time to contribute.

  • K. T.

    Really helpful! And I don’t care what word you use. Get a grip, TS

  • Omnipleasant

    I love how you apply the Pareto principle to photography. :-)

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    I’m a big fan of the Pareto principle and find it applies to just about everything!

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    Haha, thanks for the backing :)

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    Thats an interesting idea. I think it would be great if they could pull it off. The challenge would be more experienced shooters and beginners might differ on what they consider beginner, intermediate, and advanced. That said I think it would clear up a bunch!

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    You are totally right. I answered @disqus_iuWkYIaiwt:disqus below with that very same tip as she was wondering how to properly expose a photo at the beach with the sun directly behind her subjects. You made me think that I should write up a whole post just for how/when to use flash in the daylight. Good tip!

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    Thats great to hear! I wish I would have started out much younger.

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com/ Darlene Hildebrandt

    Just as a note: this article is tagged as “tips for beginners”

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com/ Darlene Hildebrandt

    I have corrected it in the article, thanks for catching that Ron

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com/ Darlene Hildebrandt

    I would also add that THE biggest problem I see newbies having is blurry images due to a slow shutter speed. Then we look and they shot at f/11 or f/16. When I ask why they have no idea.

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com/ Darlene Hildebrandt

    I too did a recent article on backlit people specifically http://www.digitalphotomentor.com/three-ways-to-fix-dark-backlit-people-photos/

  • MJBPHD

    Nice set of hacks–or tips–or helpful rules of thumb. Hilarious reading the droning posts by nit-picking readers who seem more interested in finding dust specks in your wording than in understanding your advice regarding the MANY things to consider when shooting. Please make sure to cross all your t’s.

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    Thanks for the backup :) I suppose I should consider every single possibility when writing my next post!

  • D Marcus

    Nice stuff but they aren’t hacks. Learn English, friend.

  • Googlingail

    Good Grief People!! If you are an expert in photography or English wording why are you wasting your time here anyway? This fellow has given beginners some very valuable information that is easy for us to understand and want to try. Getting caught up in what “hacking” really means is kind of defeating the purpose of what this site is all about don’t you think? Thanks Mike. I am actually going to print this out and have some fun for the next 10 photography days.

  • googlingail

    Oops…go ahead experts and tell me I should have said hacks not “hacking”.

  • JayCovert

    Umm these are not “hacks” or “tips” all the writer has done here is taken class notes from a Photography 101 course and fluffed up a bit for his article, nothing more. Pick up any “Beginning Photography” or “How To Be A Good Photographer” or “Photography for Dummies” help book out thee and you find these exact steps. So title the article reflecting that instead of using the ridiculously over-used “Hack” term.

  • Janine

    It really is sad how many people took the time to write something negative about this article. Please tell me you have something better to do.

  • Ace Ice

    dont complicate things guys..dont be much on the technical side..Mike is of help specially to the noobs ..so be it ..that simple :D

  • MartyD

    Re: Hack 5…If I lay on my stomach and shoot, my lens is usually in the dirt. :-) Sorry!! It just made a great cartoon in my head. I did enjoy the post…Thank you for the effort and letting me take a jab.

  • moe22

    Thanks for the article. In my humble opinion, newbie or grizzled vet, it never hurts to review.

  • DM

    Nice post, I enjoyed it, a few new hacks I’d not thought about. Thanks for sharing.

  • Elyse

    On point! Great tips, thank you!

  • Kristine

    Thank you for the article. I received a Nikon D5200 for Christmas and I am reading everything and trying out all the helpful hints, tips and hacks on how to really use the camera. I am looking forward to trying these out. For hack #10 to work I need to find my grid lines. Times to read the manual, again! Thanks again! ~Kristine

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    My pleasure!

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    That’s what I love about photography, we can always learn something new :)

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    I totally agree. I’ve been shooting for 8 years now and it’s funny how often I’ll read a simple article and pick up something new.

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    Hahah, I can see it now.

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    I really find that simple always wins. I started my site because most tutorials that I read were unnecessarily complex.

  • http://www.hackingphotography.com/ Mike Newton

    The grid lines are key! Enjoy.

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